Long gone the days when fanfiction was treated as a vicious pleasure, consumed exclusively on a glowing iPad screen under the covers at night and never discussed outside of Tumblr. We live in an era when supernatural star Misha Collins boasts about Dean/Castiel fanfic stats on Twitter, Harry Styles Fanfiction has been adapted into a major film franchise on Wattpad, and even Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao openly admits that writing fanfiction. The hobby has become a cultural phenomenon, casually mentioned on shows such as Euphoria, Only murders in the building, 13 reasons whyAnd Bob’s Burgers. And who could forget that Archive of Our Own (better known as AO3) Hugo Award in 2019?
Founded in 2009, AO3 is one of the biggest fanfiction sites today. This is an open source, multi-fandom archive of transformative fanworks that, as of January 2023, is home to approximately 10.5 million entries in over 55,000 fandoms ranging from big names like very strange things and Marvel in the most niche corners of the internet you can imagine. AO3 has pretty much become a household name, at least to any Gen Z or Millennials with some degree of online presence. And as fanfiction becomes more popular, some users seem to be pushing for AO3 to keep up technologically. Or rather, to make the archive function… well, more like TikTok. Imagine a “for you” page that greets you when you enter the archive. It automatically recommends your next fanfic for reading, like a very helpful friend pulling a book off the shelf for you, which he just know You will love.
However, let’s be clear: this idea will not see the light of day. “The algorithm will never come,” Claudia Rebaza, a volunteer with AO3’s parent group, the Organization for Transformational Works (OTW), tells me bluntly. But the debate about whether AO3 should have an algorithm reveals the idiosyncrasies of fanfiction and the importance of maintaining a space in which creative work can simply exist.
I understand. It is difficult for a person born in 1997 to remember the times when there were no algorithms, ratings and personal recommendations. It feels like every place on the internet is trying to become more like TikTok, from Instagram with its videos (until Kylie Jenner complained) to the “for you” Twitter feed. For better or worse, the world is feeling deeply online today. When nearly every aspect of our lives seems streamlined, it makes sense that some would want fanfiction to keep up with the times too.
But here’s the thing: AO3 is not social media. It’s just a space that houses a huge collection of works. Basically, it’s a library on your phone. A non-profit organization entirely run by volunteers, AO3 is different from other fanfiction sites like Wattpad, which is an entertainment company. “AO3 is intended to be an archive, not a social networking site, and we are a non-profit organization that will also never advertise,” Rebaza explains. “So we’re not trying to get people to spend more time on the site or make something go viral.”
Another aspect that sets the archive apart from others is its loose content policy. While the site is still drawing a line on some content – explicit material of real minors, outright plagiarism – almost all fanwork is allowed. The only major requirement is that users must flag entries that contain rape/non-cheating, graphic violence, the death of a protagonist, or underage content (alternatively, authors can simply flag “Creator chose not to archive warnings”). But as long as it’s properly labeled, it’s probably allowed, “no matter how horrible, disgusting, or poorly written, we personally may find that Content” according to the site’s terms of service.
This is a policy that has been both praised and criticized. But one reason for AO3’s hands-off philosophy is that fanfiction has historically faced a lot of resistance and censorship. For example, Fanfiction.net (FF.net), one of the first major fanfiction sites on the web, banned all work based on anything, Interview with a Vampire author Ann Rice after she reportedly threatened legal action. (The law regarding fanfiction is unclear, but OTW considers non-commercial transformative works to be subject to “fair use.”) In 2002, FF.net began implementing a strict “no NC-17 content” policy. Then, in 2012, the site famously removed a large number of stories supposedly considered too mature. This move has become widespread. Cleaning FF.Net fans, and this raised concerns about the potentially disproportionate impact on slash (same-sex fic) writers.